Lauding a Literary Lexicon

18 Jan

NOTE to non-writers: The following blog is apt to bore you to blubbery. It’s not just serious; it’s also instructive. Proceed at risk of infusing your daily rumination time with minutiae. Don’t accuse me later of not presaging disgruntlement.

After having so much fun with last week’s blog, I’ve decided to pay close attention to the national observance lists throughout the year, and I’m delighted to learn that . . .

Today is National Thesaurus Day!

In other words (heh, heh, see what I did there?), it’s a perfect day to whine, babble, drone, pratter, blather, gabble, instruct folks about thesaurus abuse. I spent 12 potentially good years of my life editing papers written by brilliant analysts, many of whom, unable to be content in said brilliance, believed they had to stupefy their readers with writing embellished to the point of obscufating their work into a state of puffery.

Much of this obscufation (no, these aren’t words, but variations on “obscurity” that I learned from those same analysts and am clinging to), was the result of Thesaurus abuse. In fact, I still remember my favorite sentence from that era: “Exploits of their loins have persisted since the middle ages.” Sadly, I cannot seem to remember nor translate to you the original thought behind this monstrosity, but I do remember the crestfallen face of the analyst when I scratched it out.

You see, the thesaurus is a perfectly good, sound, suitable, reliable, obedient tool until misused, at which point, its use can cost a writer his credibility. Its purpose is not to make your words more impressive, but to make them (and your message) more clear.

Therefore, we must follow steps to be responsible thesaurusers, steps that I shall now outline, sketch, silhouette, delineate, summarize and pontificate about.

  1. Question your motivation before clicking that “synonym” pull-down.
  2. Select the word you think you want.
  3. Look that word up.
  4. Repeat steps above until you find the perfect word or concede your original is just fine.

Motivation: Upon being inspired to consult your thesaurus, first ask yourself, “Why must I?” If your goal is to impress your readers with your brilliance, then answer yourself, “You mustn’t.” If it’s because your original word isn’t sexy enough, the answer is again, “no.” However, if the word in question falls short of accurate, OR if you are repeating the same term too many times, yes, click that pull-down.

thesaurus

That’s right, I’m engraving a blog post!

Selection: Again, sexy isn’t the goal (which is how I arrived at “obedient tool” above, in case you missed that.) There are as many wrong words in your pull-down lists as right. I don’t necessarily advocate shying away from new words, because part of the joy of reading lies in adding to one’s vocabulary. However, there’s a lot to say for keeping it simple, AND knowing one’s audience. I recently edited a book for my good buddy Brent, who insisted on using “countenance” where most humans would say “face” (approximately 20 times in the book). Yes, the words mean the same thing, but most people today would trip over it. It’s the kind of word that halts a reader, which I liken to poking a stick at him while he’s trying to read.

So, your chosen word must be pertinent, which brings us to . . .

Look it up: You don’t even need to switch to the dictionary. Feed your chosen utterance into the thesaurus. If the words on the new list are even further away from your intended meaning, let it go. This seems to be where some writers stumble. They fall in love with the sound or feel of a word and the way it livens up a sentence (as in, “A grin lit up her countenance.” RESIST, I say, plead, beg, beseech implore you!  The reading world DOES actually care. (I’m not sure my buddy Brent agrees with me, but he did heed my advice. When he’s a best-selling author and asks me to introduce him for some momentous award presentation, I plan to chide him for his stilted vocabulary.)

Repeat: Search only for a limited time and then just continue writing. Sometimes the word just isn’t there. If you’re like me, you’ll concede in favor of the Diminishing Returns formula (Passion ÷ Deadline = Sanity) and settle for something close. Then, after publication, and usually around 2 a.m., the perfect word will leap into your brain. That’s okay, really. I’ve learned that I’m actually the only person who notices. I can say with certainty, nobody has ever approached me after reading my prose and said, “You know, there’s a better word for that.” Keep your sanity. Make your deadline.

So that’s that. I hope this is helpful advice. As an editor, I urge you to treat your thesaurus as a valued employee. Recognize its potential but don’t overwork it.

I leave you with two final words of caution, derived from another great sentence in a past work of brilliance: “The nation’s non-metal resources include limestone, marble, anthracites, and various types of cola.”

  1. Not all soda is cola.
  2. If you make me laugh. You may end up in a blog post.

———————–

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. – Philippians 3:12

 

4 Responses to “Lauding a Literary Lexicon”

  1. Kae Bellamy January 18, 2019 at 5:45 pm #

    Impressive! Words fail me. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  2. suefair48 January 23, 2019 at 9:44 am #

    Good advice!

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